It’s clear from existing accounts of POWs who escaped from Camp 59 on the night of September 14, 1943, that few fully understood how they were able to escape from the camp in relative safety.

Captain J. H. Derek Millar—who was both the camp’s chief medical officer and highest-ranking British officer—acted quietly to ensure that safe passage.

Italian Giuseppe Millozzi, whose family helped to protect escaped POWs, studied historical records related to the night’s events decades later while in London as a student. In his dissertation, Allied Prisoners of War in the Region of the Marche and Prison Camp at Servigliano, he reconstructs the unfolding events of the night—as he tells the story of Captain Millar’s heroic fight with the Italian camp commandant for control of the camp, and ultimately his acceptance of full personal responsibility for allowing the men to evacuate.

Captain Millar’s move was in defiance of the “Stay Put Order” issued from London which declared all Allied POWs were to stay in the prison camps until repatriated by the Allied forces. He knew that the Germans would reach the camps sooner than the Allies, and staying would only ensure transfer of the men to camps in the north.

in 2008, in honor of his role in the liberation of the camp, the Associazione Casa della Memoria—the Camp 59 “House of Memory” association—published Captain Millar’s memoirs. In the book, Dr. Millar’s story is presented in both English and Italian.

Within the book, Edward Chaplin, British Ambassador to Italy, wrote:

“[Dr. Millar’s] ‘disobedience’ allowed around two thousand prisoners to escape and seek safety, unlike the prisoners detained in other camps nearby who remained where they were and were deported to Germany. He was decorated for his action at the end of the war. …[His] enormously generous efforts to save others in a time of great peril, will be kept alive in the minds and hearts of future generations.”

J. H. Derek Millar and the Escape

I am extremely grateful to Giuseppe Millozzi for kindly allowing me to share the following account of the escape in this post.

The Armistice in the Marche prison camps

To summarise a complex event like the Armistice, it entails necessarily some imagination and omissions. It has been attempted to unite information found in documents, books and manuscripts written by ex POWs after the war. Regarding Servigliano’s events, it has been possible—after 60 years—to interview living witnesses who played an important part—Capt. Millar—class 1914—was one of these witnesses. Also Keith Killby—class 1916, one of the SAS captured in Sardinia—who pointed out through various interviews unpublished details on the camp escape.

Bit by bit, it has been possible to have a sufficiently clear vision of the “puzzle” and to make a coherent interpretation of events.

The Armistice in the camp at Servigliano

In the evening of 8 September all the villagers of Servigliano were celebrating the announcement of the Armistice, but even though in the camp—only 1 km. away—POWs could hear an uproar, but they did not know why.

The next day, 9 September, started as any other day but during the morning a similar sound attracted POWs towards the main gate of the camp.

Even Keith Killby, whose barrack was at the other end the camp, noticed it and together with other POWs hurried up to the main gate.

“As I sat there I heard distant but growing cheering, (…) a few guards were walking through the stream of prisoners, who shook both their hands as their eyes sparkled near to tears. I had been there only 18 days, (but many prisoners) had been there 18 months, some 28 (months). What must they feel?”

POWs gathered in the parade area; the band started to play Allied national anthems but also the Italian one:

“We made our way where they played. After two numbers they came to that for which we had all been waiting—the national anthem of the Allies: Canada, France, Poland, Russia, America, and Britain—there were many strained faces and eyes that flickered as we heard those tunes which spelt home.”

Everything seemed very easy in those moments—war was ending, Allies were rapidly moving forward and Germans were retreating. Guards were hoping it and also POWs hoped it more than ever. Montgomery had programmed the Italian campaign on paper—run across Italy and set all POWs free from their camps:

“A secret radio had been supplying us with up to date news of the war’s progress and news bulletins were read nightly in each hut to receptive audiences.”

There was a general confusion. Both from Italian and Allied sides, through war bulletins, news of presumed landings all over Italy circulated. This news did not circulate only among POWs—everybody magnified it, with the result to create an even greater confusion:

“as the evening wore on, we had a long discussion with an Italian sergeant major (…); the discussion was getting rather heated. We were shouting and the Sergeant began to shout in his turn: ‘calma, calma!’. He was inviting us to be calm, but he lacked control himself. The truth was, however, that he did not know what to do and neither did we.”

The same day that the Italian Armistice was announced in the camp—that is 9 September—the Camp leader Serg. Maj. Hegarty went to the camp infirmary. He was not capable to take an autonomous initiative and the Armistice had perplexed him. In tears, he confessed to the two medical officers—Millar and Duff—he was not able to handle such a complex situation. Responsibility was excessive for him and he therefore asked one of them to take command. Without hesitation, Capt. Millar stepped forward and from that moment onwards he became the formal commanding officer of the camp, during the most difficult days of its story.

On 10 September, Capt. Millar was taken by Colonel Bacci and his interpreter Giorgio Cusani outside the camp. Bacci wanted to show to Capt. Millar what measures he was taking in case of a German attack. Furthermore, Bacci assured Capt. Millar that they were in telephonic communication with all the carabinieri [police] stations—including the one at Porto San Giorgio strategically placed to sight German troops advancing.

“Cusani, the interpreter, was a friend of mine and he told me the commandant was misinforming me and it was incorrect we were in telephonic communication with Porto San Giorgio.”

Also on 10 September arrived at the camp an English sergeant. He was sent on behalf of a colonel interned in an officers prison camp. He had come for an important communication for the camp commanding officer. The sergeant informed Capt. Millar of the stay put order—prisoners had to remain in the camp. Capt. Millar answered:

“Give the colonel my compliments and tell him that I am in command of this camp and will do what I think fit.”

On 11 and 12 September, Capt. Millar carefully thought on what was the best action to take. He consulted his colleague Duff and with father Nye and together they discussed the implications of the stay put order. Furthermore, they asked themselves if the news coming from the camp was from reliable sources—was it true that the Allies were landing on Italian coasts and could arrive in two or three days?

“After three days, we were suspicious as to the truth of this report, whereas rumours that Germans were taking camps ‘en bloc’ back to Germany were becoming more frequent. We were therefore faced with the decision either to sit and wait, as officially instructed, but running the risk of being caught like rats in a trap, or risking court-marshal, the possible death of some and the complete disintegration of the camp by a mass escape. After careful consideration among ourselves, with the Senior British Officer and NCOs, we agreed to run the latter risk, but decided to try and do it officially by requesting permission and help from our supposed allies.”

In order to organise a mass escape without risking POWs lives, it was essential to obtain authorisation to evacuate the camp by Colonel Bacci.

On 13 September, Capt. Millar started to take the first steps for a possible escape. He ordered Serg. Maj. Hegarty to hand out Red Cross parcels and boots that were stored in the camp depot, and to make numerous copies of Capt. Millar’s SAS escaping map of Italy that had been printed on big handkerchiefs and which he had managed to keep, in spite of the many searches.

September 1943—the day of escape

Capt. Millar met the interpreter, Giorgio Cusani, in the morning and confided his intention—decided with Duff and Nye—to give the order to evacuate the camp. Cusani agreed with him and thought it that was the right decision.

Early in the afternoon, Capt. Millar asked Serg. Maj. Hegarty to summon for an important meeting in the infirmary all the English and American NCOs—approximately 20 NCOs among the British sergeant majors and American top sergeants. Capt. Millar summarized events of previous days and finally communicated his decision to leave the camp, leaving them half an hour to come to an agreement. When Capt. Millar came back, one of them informed him of their decision—the majority preferred to wait 24 hours for developments in the situation, but Capt. Millar did not agree; he would have gone to see Bacci to get permission to evacuate the camp that day. Around 5 p.m., prisoners gathered in the area in front of the huts and Capt. Millar informed them about his decision, saying to be ready to escape but not to do anything foolish before or after the escape—guards were in fact still there, well armed, mounting guard in the watch towers and nobody wanted a bloodbath. Straight after, Capt. Millar, Duff, and Nye tried to see Col. Bacci, but they did not succeed.

On 14 September—two days after Mussolini escaped from imprisonment on the Gran Sasso thanks to Skorzeny—Col. Bacci was tired of the many rumours about the presumed Allied landings and so, accompanied by a sergeant, he decided to go and inspect the ports on the coast. Towards the evening, after he had realised there were no Allied units arriving, he decided to go back to the camp. He was in a paradoxical situation, he was between the devil and the deep blue sea—one side the Germans and on the other the Allies. Furthermore, he had received anonymous threats by the Fascists at Servigliano who had threatened him and his wife with death if he did not hand the POWs over to the Germans.

What to do? What would happen if he had let the prisoners go? Would they do violence to civilians in the area? And what to do with the Fascists of Servigliano, or even worse, with the Germans? How would they react if they found an empty prison camp? Anyone in his position would have waited for developments in the situation and then chosen the lesser evil. Most probably Col. Bacci thought the lesser evil was to keep prisoners inside the camp. If the Allies arrived first they would praise him as he had protected POWs, while if Germans arrived before the Allies he would still have been praised as he had kept and handed POWs over to them.

However, when Bacci arrived at the camp he did not even think that many things had changed during his absence:

“I got to camp at 22.00 hrs and found (…) nearly all the officers thought the prisoners were agitated because they heard the Germans were at Monte Giorgio. I sent for officers and hut commandants of POWs. I heard some shots fired in the air because some prisoners tried to climb the wall, sentries fired in the air according to orders.”

After that Capt. Millar had communicated to POWs in the afternoon the order to be ready to escape, an irreversible force started in the camp. Tension had greatly risen, because there were rumours that Germans were near and on the point of surrounding the camp. The 22 SAS soldiers, who had been captured in Sardinia and had been in the camp for only two weeks, were the best trained and notwithstanding malaria, they were not suffering from Gefangenitis and so, without waiting for further orders:

“My colleagues in the SAS decided to make a hole in the wall. Some of them went out and guards fired.”

It was then that Colonel Bacci called together anyone responsible for the POWs. Among them, Capt. Millar, the Medical Officer Duff, the RAF Chaplain Nye, the interpreter Giorgio Cusani, and the marshal of carabinieri Giuseppe Di Bernardino.

There was a trial of strength with insults and threats that lasted for some minutes in which Capt. Millar asked for the immediate suspension of fire and the authorisation to evacuate the camp. After a brief consultation with his men, Bacci yielded, but on one condition—Capt. Millar had to take the full responsibility of this deed. He hastily dictated some sentences in Italian. Cusani translated them, Capt. Millar wrote them in his own hand and signed a declaration. Today it is possible to consult this creased and torn document in the appendix of the file WO 235/139 [at the National Archive in London].

“I have attempted to cooperate with the Italian authority. It has been decided to evacuate the camp immediately as we think the Germans are near. As I wish to save my men, I take all responsibility. I guarantee the order to the Italians.”

14/9/43
22.22

John Derek Millar
Captain

Being good Anglo-Saxon, in the western side of the camp, there were approximately 50 POWs who were queuing and waiting their turn to go through the hole made in the wall, but bullets were fired in the air and risk was enormous. However, the unexpected was going to happen:

“then there was an order; I never heard an order given so clearly: ‘non sparate, lasciateli scappare!’ and we all went, in every direction, out of all gates and doors and the Italian guards with us.”

Notes:

The term Gefangenitis comes from the German verb gefangen—”to imprison someone”. This term is used in Foot and Langley’s book MI9 Escape and Evasion to describe the state of depression—very close to “neglect”—in which many POWs found themselves after months of captivity and which stopped them from taking any personal initiative.

‘Non sparate, lasciateli scappare!’ translates to “Do not shoot, let them escape.”

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